Proceed with Caution: Process and Contingency in Games and Art

“Contemporary art models more than it represents.”
– Nicolas Bourriaud

In Beyond Play: a New Approach to Games, the anthropologist Thomas Malaby expresses his interest in discarding the formalism and exceptionalism underlying most game definitions. Instead he suggests that games can best be understood through two qualities, their ‘processual’ nature and their inherent ‘contingency.’ For Malaby a game is not an object, a collection of props or code, but a process that begins and ends with each session of play. In other words, the game of chess only exists when two people sit down to maneuver pieces across a checkered board according to their mutual understanding of the rules. Once they have stopped playing, that particular instance of chess disappears, and the pieces and board become merely trinkets. Central to any of these processes, whether chess or baseball or World of Warcraft, is contingency. For Malaby the outcome of a game can never be known ahead of time, or else the process can no longer be defined as a game. The end of any game must always be indeterminate at the beginning.

Beyond Play maps these notions of process and contingency onto myriad areas of academic discourse, including pragmatism, semiotics, and practice theory. However, noticeably absent from his list of disciplines are art theory, art criticism, and art history. This is remarkable not only because Beyond Play was written in a lively moment in the history of the “Are games art?” debate, but also because the language Malaby uses in describing a process-based, contingency-centric character to games is so strongly reminiscent of two particular moments in art history: when Conceptual Art of the 1960’s and 1970’s challenged definitions of art spectatorship, art-as-object, and artwork exceptionalism, and more recently when the concept of ‘relational aesthetics’ further blurred the line between the artist, the art work, and the patron



One of Malaby’s central concerns is to free games, and play, from being defined primarily as “safe, separable, and pleasurable”. In addition to this rejection of normative meanings such as ‘fun’, he posits the idea of treating games as “domains,” and play as a “mode of experience” that can exist in tandem with any number of other activities. This argument, he notes, is a “conceptualization” of the term game, stripping it of a tangible form as a separable physical activity and restating it as an ongoing process. This exploration of a new perspective on games and play withstands a broad comparison to the treatment of art groups like Fluxus and others connected with Conceptual art, who collectively repositioned art as human-powered events rather than objects.

In the 1960’s artists and critics began favoring the idea in art over the object and dislodged the traditional importance of an inalterable, final, physical form (for example a painting or sculpture) to be viewed by a spectator. Instead art was promoted as its own kind of “process of becoming”, to use Malaby’s phrase. The artist and electrical engineer Billy Kluver has noted that Robert Rauschenberg created technological art and performance experiences to “introduce multiplicity, make works change over time, and activate viewer participation.” In Kluver and Rauschenburg’s Oracle (1962-65), an interactive sculpture and sound environment featuring “gifts from the street”, a car door, a typewriter, and other pieces showcasing quotidian technology, the art was in the experience of engaging it, the work “as changing and provocative as the city it was reporting on” (Kluver, again). Art in the ‘60s then took on a character of metamorphosis, triggered by the engagement of the spectator.

Because the work of artists like Rauschenberg and Kluver could not exist without the active participation of the spectator they suggested a new mode of spectatorship that provoked viewers to reflect on the relationship of art experience to “real life.” Here “semi-bounded”, another phrase from Malaby, is a particularly apt description of the art experience.

Some of the art from this period incorporated game-like structures more directly. ‘Fluxus Boxes’ contained games and game-related tokens, but perhaps more importantly the Fluxus ‘event-scores’, which were brief scripts for different pieces of performance art, incorporated formal structures that were, according to historian and philosopher Peter Osbourne, “allied to contingency, chance and random systems of relations”. For instance, Conceptual Artist Nam June Paik’s Symphony for 20 Rooms structured viewer engagement by having viewers play various sound pieces and complete actions (e.g. kicking objects around) in an imagined play space of 20 rooms. Different audiences might interact in different ways with the piece, producing unpredictable variations in sound and action.

Other artists of the period chose to employ an even more game-reminiscent method of contriving contingency: they stated rules of engagement. 16 Constellations (1974), by the Contretist artist Max Bill, is a sequence of circles and lines with a rule set printed alongside the work (“1. The Circle does not move. 2. The lines never intersect. 3. The same constellation is not allowed to repeat itself…”). While Bill’s interest was on “mediative, transcendental, utopian ideals”, another piece by Robert Rauschenberg, who was more closely associated with Conceptualist processes, focused on the process of contingent participation of the spectator using rules as a mode of control. Rauschenberg’s 9 Evenings combined technology, performance, and instructions for engaging the system. Often those instructions directed audiences members to engage with one another (through hugging, for example), but as in Malaby’s conception of games, “fun” was not a critical part of the process.

An early member of Fluxus, Yoko Ono’s Instructions for Paintings (1962), in contrast to Robert Rauschenberg’s Evenings, celebrated a kind of recursive process of art creation: the work was ‘activated’ by a viewer following the directions, but those instructions could themselves easily be reproduced by a viewer and altered as they saw fit. The art object – the written set of instructions – was not important. In fact, Ono had another individual write out the original instructions so that her own hand would be erased from the art, and the “ownership” of the rule set would be nullified. As Malaby might point out, this indirectly highlighted the work’s “potential for transformation”, similar to the sometimes plastic nature of a game’s ruleset in the hands of its players.



In aligning Malaby’s conceptualization of games to a Conceptualist approach to art, where does the comparison fail?

Malaby remarks on the idea of “shared engagement of contingency [as] a powerful means for developing trust and belonging.” It was not always typical, however, of the Conceptualists to focus on this notion of affecting a major impact on the relationships of spectators/participants to one another (though there are many exceptions). The phenomenon of shared engagement – and the related notion of the collective interpretation of outcomes and meaning generated from shared experience – is core to the much more contemporary notion of ‘relational art,’ which, in the words of its chief definer, Nicolas Bourriaud, “acquires [its] formal and theoretical marks in Conceptual Art.” Bourriaud’s text Relational Aesthetics helps us to triangulate the position of games in relation to the art practices of the present and the Conceptual art that preceded them.

In following with Malaby’s insistence that games do not occupy an entirely separate space from life, relational artworks by Bourriaud’s description “take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.” The artworks of this school are necessarily tied to, and react to, real life, and the relationship between the art and the world is layered and complex, defined through the experience of the art. Relational art is not as purposefully anti-object as Conceptual art – dismissal of the object is not part of a contemporary agenda — but it is not object-centric either. Much as a game of Chess is nothing but the bounded actions of two players with a set of props, the focus in relational aesthetics for Bourriaud remains on “the collective elaboration of meaning” arising from the encounter.

In elaborating on the encounters in relational art, Bourriaud explicitly mentions games, saying, “the figures of reference of human relations have now become fully-fledged artistic ‘forms.’ Meetings, encounters, events, various types of collaboration between people, games, festivals… all manner of encounter and relational invention” (my emphasis). His placement of games as artistic forms and figures of reference seems to be in concert with Malaby’s description of games’ definitive function in generating meaning through their activation by players, and also to generate a “distinctive disposition”, as he calls it, about how to act within the domain of engagement.

With relational art, the role of art is “to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real.” Malaby’s games fit well within this concept. To Malaby games and game-like life activities are “mutually informed,” and he even uses similar terminology to the quote from Bourriaud at the top of this essay when he speaks of Greek games of luck, which for their players “served as models for their actions in other high-stakes arenas of their lives.” Malaby’s articulation of how a definition of games must “allow for the way they inhabit, reflect, and constitute the processes of everyday experience” lies in parallel to Bourriad’s articulation of relational art.

Bourriaud also applies the game metaphor to his analysis of relational works like Les Ateliers du Paradiseu (1990), which turned the gallery into a club house for the artists to live in, and which had “precise rules of play… The interplay of inter-human relations was thus materialized in compliance with the principles of an interactive video-game”.



Just as games are not reducible to their rules in Malaby’s eyes, Bourriaud believes that art “is not an immutable essence… Artistic activity is a game, whose forms, patterns and functions develop and evolve according to periods and social contexts.” They demonstrate a certain recursion, in this sense, a concept of particular interest to Malaby. In relational art, “the game is being forever re-enacted… in relation to the players and the system which they construct and criticize.” The art is flexible to some degree: it is, as Marcel Duchamp said of chess, “very plastic.”

Does it follow that the ‘mini-utopias’ created by artists in the era of relational art are using contingency as a critical point of departure? They surely are, but it is on the point of contingency that Malaby’s games diverge from Bourriaud’s art practices. Despite the fact that art, like games, “tightens the space of relations” among people, the art described by Bourriaud does not necessarily concern itself with issues described by Malaby, like permitting ‘flow’, the “learned condition of mastery”. Likewise, relational artworks are not, as Malaby says of games, “distinctive in their achievement of a generative balance between the open-endedness of contingencies and the reproducibility of conditions for action” and are not always searching for “just the right mix of the expected and unexpected.”

Though creating relational art might fairly be characterized in a fashion similar to how Malaby characterizes the creation of games – “about creating the complex, implicit, contingent conditions wherein the texture of engaged human experience can happen” – relational art does not necessarily favor unpredictability in reflecting that texture of experience to the same extent as games. Contingencies exist as important features of relational works, which, like Conceptual works, are activated through participation and often improvisation, but there seems to be a separation in the matter of the degree to which the designer/artist focuses on that balance of contingency and predictability in art and in games.

Malaby’s Beyond Play ultimately suggests that gameness can be discovered in many activities we don’t typically recognize as games, and that the relationship of games to game-like activities is important and culturally meaningful. As a mode, play can exist atop any number of activities, and we see this mode of engagement take a crucial role in several areas of art. The Conceptualists, perhaps not explicitly, discovered the applicability and relevance of play and gameness to their own work and times, and it has since become typical of contemporary, relational art.

Ultimately, these parallels offer a way of considering both the ‘gameness of art’ and the ‘artness of games’ more than they suggest that games are art, or vice versa. If games truly are processes that are un-tethered to any particular formal expression or cultural space, their potential for enhancing cultural practices like art creation is obvious, and the adoption of gameness in art that positions itself as a “system of interactive encounters”, to use Bourriaud’s phrase, seems almost inevitable.



Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. Les Presses du Reel, 1998: 9-79

Kluver, Billy with Julie Martin. “Working with Rauschenberg.” Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective. Guggenheim Museum, 1998: 310-27

Malaby, Thomas M. “Beyond Play: A New Approach to Games.” Games & Culture.

Osborne, Peter, ed. Conceptual Art. Phaidon Press Limited, 2002